Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The Men Who Loved Trains

The Men Who Loved TrainsSometimes a railroad history comes along that isn’t just a history. It’s not a lecture of facts, figures, and dates. But instead is a story of people, of power, and the great men that shaped the country.

In The Men Who Loved Trains Rush Loving Jr. takes the reader through the most tirmulous time in the history of the rail industry. Beginning with the merger-mania of the early 1960’s and ending with the Conrail split, quite a lot of railroad history is condensed into 345 pages. A more modern work, Loving provides additional perspective not seen in some of the earlier histories such as The Wreck of the Penn Central. He managed to research during that critical time when many of the players were still around but had the ability to be more honest and open about their decisions.

Told through the career of Jim McClellan, the self described “Forest-Gump of Railroading”, the reader gets a front road seat to the modern

If I had to find fault in Loving’s work, it would be his predisposition to focus on heroes and villians. It makes for a great story, but anyone who has studied history will realize that it is rarely cut and dried. His bias leans more towards those who were available to interview either during the creation of the book or during the author’s extensive career working as a journalist for Fortune. I have my doubts that Stuart Saunders was as incompetent or David Bevan

My other major complaint is the amount of Enron comparisons. It’s a salient point to make, but after two or three times the horse had been beat to death. This will only get worse over time, as it dates the work solidly into the second term of the George H.W. Bush administration. In today’s post-bailout world, the Penn Central comparisons could be taken even farther.


I don’t consider myself prone to hyperbole, but I consider this one of the most informative and useful railroad histories of the last 20 years.This book should be the cornerstone of any serious rail literature collection.

If you’re interested in The Men Who Loved Trains, you can support Rare Mileage and purchase it from Amazon. It’s available for Kindle and in paperback.

The Hocking Valley Railway

It’s been a while since I have done a book review. Luckily, I managed to pick up a copy of Edward H. Miller’s The Hocking Valley Railway. Published relatively recently (crica-2007), the book provides a detailed and nearly comprehensive look at Ohio’s largest intrastate railroad.

The Hocking Valley Railway began its corporate history as the Mineral Railroad Company in 1864. Chartered to carry coal from the Hocking River Valley to the markets of Columbus, the railroad soon underwent a name change and became the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad. After a number of mergers, buyouts, and receiverships, the railroad became the Hocking Valley Railway in 1899. It is under this name the railroad was most well known. The Hocking Valley became a fallen flag after being purchased by the C&O in 1930.

Miller goes through detailed histories of each predecessor railroad, its lines, and its relationship to the Hocking Valley. He also includes short biographies of each railway president, something I have not seen too often in these kind of works. In-between the larger themes of the narrative (ownership, presidents, and corporate games), he finds time to work in significant but smaller events from the time period discussed like wrecks, expansions, and the occasional disaster.

Read On…

The Famous Commodore

Last week I was intrigued by an article in the Wall Street Journal that compared Warren Buffet to the late Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt practically created the New York Central, but beyond that I knew very little about the man.

I stopped at our campus library and picked up the book Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The book provides a length narrative detailing from birth till death and every major life event along the way. It details how Vanderbilt went from nothing to go on and create his massive family fortune, first through sail, then steamships, and finally the railroads.

Additional detail is spent on the more troubling aspects of his personal life that might not be found in older works on the subject. Vanderbilt had a habit of picking up less than respectable girls from the waterfront. In fact advanced syphilis would directly lead to his death.

The author, Edward J. Renehan Junior, goes to great lengths to provide a well-researched book. He mentions a number of facts where previous biographies do not agree with his sources and provides great backing of his opinions.

As a biography the work is splendid. As a railroad book it is not so much. Only one of the 24 chapters deals significantly with the railroads and Vanderbilt’s business actions when he executed a couple of famous cornerings of the Hudson River Railroad and the New York and Harlem Railroad. Later mention is made of his failure to corner the Erie Railroad against Jay Gould.

Later Vanderbilt would merge his major New York Railroads with the New York Central, a road operating from Buffalo to Albany. This created the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, a single railroad company all the way from Manhattan to Buffalo.

I don’t really fault the author for the lack of railroad information. I did not realize that the majority of Vanderbilt’s railroad dealing were late in his life. His son, William Vanderbilt went on to help mold the New York Central’s western expansions. Instead, most of Vanderbilt’s life was spend on the steamship business and the book is proportioned accordingly. It did not detract from my enjoyment in the least.

After reading this book, would I compare Vanderbilt to Buffet? Probably not. Though the two both invested heavily in railroads during their later years, I find them to be different in both personality and temperament.If you want to make your own decision I encourage you to check out Commodore at Amazon.

The Overseas Railway

Last week from my local library I picked up a copy of Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean. The book touched on the formation of the Florida East Coast Railroad and focused mainly on the historic Key West Extension.

Little do most people realize the connection between Ohio and the Florida East Coast Railway. Henry Flagler was born in Bellevue, Ohio. He co-founded Standard Oil with the better remembered John D. Rockefeller. Then he retired from the oil business, and for his second career he built the state of Flordia almost single-handedly. He is remembered for constructing the Florida East Coast Railroad, founding the cities of Miami and Palm Beach (among others), and developing a chain of luxury resorts down the coast.

The site of Flagler’s residence in Bellevue is currently the site of the Mad River and Nickel Plate Railroad Museum.

The book begins at the end, so to speak, telling the story of the horrific Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The storm is described in the ways that only a novelist could, and Les Standiford leaves the reader hanging at the perfect moment. The narrative then cuts to the present day and a trip down the current highway built through the keys. The drive is told with such excitement it makes me one to hop in my car and make the journey myself.

Henry Flagler’s early life and accomplishments are summarized, and then the historic trip he took down to Florida with his sick wife is told. He became interested in Florida, and constructed his famous Ponce de Leon hotel in 1885. As he expanded his hotel business, Flagler realized the need Florida had for better transportation facilities. There were few good options for traveling south of Jacksonville.

Like any good millionaire, Flagler saw a need and moved on his own to meet it. He purchased the first predecessor railroad of the FEC, the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railway, on December 31st 1885. Soon he added three more companies to the growing empire, the St. John’s Railway, St. Augustine and Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns and Halifax River Railway. All his railroads were soon made standard gauge to better operate as one combined system.

In 1892 Flagler began building his own railroad tracks south from Daytona Beach. By 1896 the tracks reached the site of present day Miami. Flagler helped build utilities and fund the newspaper of the small settlement. In fact, had the citizens got their way the town would have been named after Henry Flagler, but he convinced them to instead use the native Indian name of Miami.

In 1905 the grand extension of the railroad to Key West was planned. Many said it was not possible, as the 153 mile route included multiple spans over open water. Not a cent of government money was used, no environmental studies were commissioned. It’s hard to imagine such a project ever taking place in this day and age.

The Overseas Railway was completed in 1912, just 16 months before Henry Flagler’s death. The Key West Extension never made a dime in profit. The deep water port in Key West never developed, and the traffic from the newly constructed Panama Canal never arrived. The argument can be made that Flagler never really expected a return on his investment. Instead it was to be his lasting legacy to the state of Florida.

On Labor Day Weekend 1935 a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude struck the keys. It was the strongest Atlantic storm to ever strike the United States before or since, with sustained winds of 185 mph. The Key West extension, always vulnerable to hurricanes was severely damaged and the bankrupt FEC could not rebuild it. Instead, the roadbed was sold for pennies to the state of Florida. The state used much of the route constructing US 1, the first highway to the Keys. In fact, much of the railroad bridges were so strong the roadway was build directly on top of them.

Today, Flagler’s legacy still exists in the keys. Though much of the bridges have since been bypassed, the railroad bridges still serve as fishing piers and access to a few remote Islands. There is even talk of building a multi-use trail along the old railroad route and across the old spans. The railroad he built has survived receiverships and mergers for many years while maintaining its independence. In 2008 shortline conglomerate Rail America purchased the road and moved their headquarters into the FEC’s building in Jacksonville.

Last Train to Paradise provided a comprehensive look at the life of Henry Flagler and his Overseas Railway. My only complaints are some slower parts of the book, focusing more on the individual bridge construction and less about outfitting the railroad as a whole. It was, however, interesting to discover an Ohio connection where I never expected there to be one. For those who might also want to read this book, it is currently on sale at Amazon.

The Wreck of the Penn Central

After researching the history of Buckeye Yard the other week I’ve been on a bit of a Penn Central kick. There’s not a lot of people out there who model the Penn Central, but it has a certain mystic. There’s something morbidly fascinating about the great railroad that managed to implode in only 867 days.

The The Wreck of the Penn Central by Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen provides an interesting look at that railroad monolith created back on February 1st, 1968. The book starts out with a brief history of the respective companies. The PRR and the NYC are compared and contrast while the reader begins to understand how their respective ideologies developed. This becomes important later when you witness some of the well-known corporate culture clashes that developed in the railroad at all levels.

Eventually the book transitions in the actual merger and some of the reasons it failed. The Penn Central’s problems were many and varied. They ranged to everything from railroad operation problems (the non-compatible computer systems are a famous example), to high labor costs, to factors beyond the railroad’s control (the ICC, the state of the industry, ect).

While the first few chapters kept me on the edge of me seat reading, the book drags a bit in the middle. Too much time is spent describing every point of the Penn Central’s “Diversification Program” and every investment or perceived conflict of interest within the management is emphasized. There comes a point when you realize there is no way this railroad will stay in business and that it will all fail spectacularly. The book overemphasizes just how bad things were and for a while you have to trudge through it in order to see the fireworks at the end.

When the house of cards finally collapses however, it does so with great interest. Even though history tells you all you need to know about the end, there is a while when it seems as if the government would step in with a bailout to save the day and you almost think they will pull it off. Yet as everyone knows it was not to be and the Penn Central would fail as the largest bankruptcy to that point in American history.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is not the manuscript itself but the time it was written. The book was published in 1971, just one year after the Penn Central bankruptcy. Conrail wasn’t formed for 5 more years. People still viewed the nationalization of the railroads as a possible doomsday option. The Staggers Act and many of the things today’s modern railroad takes for granted all happened after this book was written. As a result a very bleak picture is painted for the future of the railroad industry.

It’s interesting to look back with hindsight and compare their predictions of the future with today’s modern efficient railroad system of today. Now only 2 companies compete East of the Mississippi and much of the Penn Central’s track is long-gone. However, after reading this book I think the collapse of the Penn Central may have been necessary. The abandonments and deferred maintenance hurt in the short term, but in the long run the fallout from the Penn Central (deregulation of the railroads, Conrail, Amtrak, ect) may have saved the entire industry.

At its core, The Wreck of the Penn Central is written as a warning that this is no way to merge and business, and certainly no way to run a railroad. Its message of bailouts and “too-big-to-fail” companies is surprisingly relevant in today’s political and economic climate. Railroad buffs and business majors alike can find something to learn in this book, and overall I think it was worth the read.

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